Plans to turn Mt Tarawera and the surrounding land and lake area into a world-class tourism venture are on the cards with a new partnership being formed between local Maori and government agencies.
Land owners in the area have confirmed to the Rotorua Daily Post they are currently in Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with the Crown and once land is returned, they hope to make better use of the area to return it as a premier tourist destination.
The partnership is a joint venture between Ngati Rangitihi, Tuhourangi, the Department of Conservation, the Rotorua Lakes Council and the Crown.
Before Mt Tarawera erupted 130 years ago, tourists would visit to view what was known as the eighth wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces.
However, the eruption, which killed many locals, destroyed the attraction and resulted in the local iwi relocating to Ngati Wahiao's area at Whakarewarewa.
Mt Tarawera used to be open for members of the public to walk up for a small fee but had been operating commercially for more than 15 years, a move which created a public uproar at the time. Today tourists can go on guided walks and helicopter rides up the mountain to visit the crater.
Te Mana o Ngati Rangitihi Trust chairman Leith Comer said for some time there had been an aspiration to do more with the Tarawera area to attract greater tourism numbers.
"It's early days yet. Ngati Rangitihi, Tuhourangi and DOC (Department of Conservation) are looking at ways of how we can restore the mauri of the mountain, the land and the lake.
"We would like to provide a greater opportunity for visitors to enjoy the environs.
"We are currently involved in treaty negotiations with the Crown. Ngati Rangitihi is trying to claim more of our traditional land around the mountain ... We want to restore all of the pristine land and get rid of predators and restore birdlife."
However, Mr Comer said it was important for all parties involved to ensure the developments were sustainable.
"You can't restore the beauty of the place and ruin it with ill disciplined tourists. What is being looked at will enhance Ngati Rangitihi, Tuhourangi and New Zealand. It will be wonderful.
"We have to make sure we can sustain the mauri, the land and the lake.
"It is private Maori land but we are happy to have visitors come."
Tuhourangi Tribal Authority chairman Alan Skipwith said there was some good work going on and it could only get better.
"There have been plans for some years to harness the unique potential Tarawera has, there is plenty of potential and opportunity to do things better.
"We [Tuhourangi] and Rangitihi are the closest, strongest neighbours so it made sense to join together to ensure Tarawera continues to be a special place for us and the generations to come."
Mr Skipwith said the priority for him was the environment.
"A lot of work is required and it was from talks about how we could improve our water quality and pest control that we started to explore more tourism opportunities.
"It will be a balancing act but it's a good thing for us to be working on and the potential is exciting, not just for iwi but Rotorua as a whole."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said her involvement was negotiating with the Crown.
"My role is to negotiate with the Crown what is the best protection for Mt Tarawera.
"I am working with Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi and we are working on a shared aspiration that reopens Mt Tarawera to both the public and visitors alike.
"It is now back in the hands of Rangitihi and Tuhourangi but we are all working as partners."
She said she was not sure if opening access to the area would mean it would once again be free or cheaper for locals.
"That's up for the hapu to say."
However, she said the plans were very exciting and would only contribute to Rotorua as a visitor destination.
"To me it's very symbolic. It is an iconic mountain in our landscape. It was one of the greatest stories of our past."
Department of Conservation Tauranga and Rotorua operations manager Jeff Milham said discussions had been going on for the last 18 months.
"Iwi have recognised that the complex land ownership in the area means that strong collaboration is required between key players, and that this could mean an increase of investment into this special place.
"Iwi are committed to working together and by building partnerships with the many people committed to restoring the ecological and cultural health of the Tarawera area.
"Together we can drive pest and weed control to encourage the return of native species, restore the water quality, and to support high quality sustainable tourism, an exciting multi-day walk and business in what is one of New Zealand's outstanding natural and cultural environments."
Volcanic Air Safaris is one of two tourism operators allowed use of Mt Tarawera.
Managing director Phill Barclay said there were opportunities for tourism ventures in the area but it was vital these were explored as a team.
"Quite a bit could be done in the area but the tourism side of it has got to be managed in a good way that ensures the quality is improved and it's not just about numbers, numbers, numbers."
Rotorua Lakes Council's group manager, strategy and partnerships, Jean-Paul Gaston said the council was supportive of "any initiative to restore this unique, natural area which is very special to Rotorua and is an intrinsic part of the district's history".
"We are aware of ongoing discussions between other parties and while council is not involved in these discussions or any decision-making, we can see the potential that exists and support the landowners' vision for the area."
- Additional reporting Kelly Makiha
- Prior to the eruption, Mt Tarawera was a popular tourism destination
- Access has been controlled since 2000
- In 2002 the public was banned from walking its scoria slopes
- Currently two tourism operators have access to the mountain - Volcanic Air Safaris and Kaitiaki Adventures.